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The life of Private William Arthur Ham, from Ngatimoti
- the first NZ serviceman to be killed in action during WWI

Posted June 24th, 2012
By Anne McFadgen, first published in "The Prow".

The ANZACs were formed at Gallipoli, right? Wrong. Although they first fought as a unit at Gallipoli, the Australia and New Zealand Corps was created several months earlier in Egypt, where a short, fiercely contested battle between the Allies and Turkish forces for control of the Suez Canal gave the New Zealanders their first taste of war.

Playing a significant part in routing the Turks were men from the Nelson/Tasman area; members of the 12th (Nelson) Company, Canterbury Infantry Battalion, of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. For one, the price of victory was high. 22-year-old Willie Ham from Ngatimoti became New Zealand's very first WWI battlefield casualty.

When the troopship RMS Athenic set off from Wellington on October 16, 1914, on board were 14 men from Ngatimoti who had joined up straight after war was declared with Germany. They included Private William Ham and Major Cyprian Bridge Brereton, company commander of the 12th (Nelson) Company, whose memoir Tales of Three Campaigns gives a lively account of the voyage to Egypt and Battle of the Suez Canal.

Wm Bridle, Motueka, photographer. Photo courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph Database.

The New Zealand convoy was joined en route by transports carrying the Australian Imperial Force. They were all bound for France, but Turkey's entry into the war as a German ally meant a detour to Egypt. After disembarking at Alexandria on the 3rd of December, the Australians and New Zealanders encamped at Zeitoun, just outside Cairo.

Operating as a joint contingent dubbed the ANZACs, they underwent intensive training. Off duty, they took in the sights, with Cairo's fleshpots a particular eye-opener for the country boys.

Fighting began at the Canal near Ismailia on February 3, 1915. Flanked by Gurkha and Punjabi troops, the 12th (Nelson) Company was stationed at Serapeum, right at the centre of the Turkish attack. William Ham was hit; a chance bullet ricocheted off his rifle and struck his neck, breaking his spine. He died of his wounds at Ismailia Hospital on the evening of the 5th, and was buried next day at the Ismailia civil cemetery.

So, who was William Arthur Ham? Born on 14 April, 1892 in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, he emigrated with his parents, William and Hester Ham, and two younger brothers, arriving in New Zealand October 1900. The family travelled on the RMS Athenic, the very ship that transported William to Egypt 11 years later.

They first lived in Wanganui before moving in 1905 to the small rural settlement of Ngatimoti in the Motueka Valley. William enrolled at the Orinoco School in May that year. The Hams later ran a general store at Ngatimoti and William worked locally as a farmhand for the Beatsons at the Ngatimoti Peninsula, and as labourer for the Waimea County Council.

The news of William's death hit his family hard, the shock contributing to his father 's own death just a month later. Nevertheless, his younger brother, Thomas, also joined up. He survived to complete his service, but would die in 1942 while fighting in the Pacific during WWII. Hester Ham remarried in 1916, however her new husband, Cyril Bartlett, enlisted not long after and was killed the following year in Belgium.

Meanwhile the 12th (Nelson) Company went on to fight, first at Gallipoli and then the Western Front. What about those other Ngatimoti men who went off so eagerly to serve King and Country?

"Of those first fourteen who left Ngatimoti for the war," noted Major Brereton, "eleven were killed in action or died of wounds, one died of sickness and only two lived to see New Zealand again, and those two between them received seven wounds". A memorial erected by friends and relatives at St James Church, Ngatimoti, honours their sacrifice.

For more photos, sources used and links to further information please visit The Prow website, where this article was originally published.

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